Tuesday, November 30


Lately, I've come across a whole bunch of pretty depressing news. Most of it about impending disaster. I don't know why this has been happening to me lately; maybe it's a self-selection thing (or maybe the world really is going to shit!).

anyway, The WHO is suggesting a bird flu pandemic that could kill 100 million people. The Economist is suggesting a collapse of the American dollar. Bush won the presidency again (ok, not a total disaster). Kevin Sites says Iraq is a clusterfuck.

hey world, what's going on?

Monday, November 29

Thoughts on software development

Quick thoughts now, so I don't forget I want to talk about this. Bug me about it, if you haven't seen it in a bit and you care.

It strikes me that there's a relatively major conflict between the unix, use-text-as-your-API, do-one-thing-and-do-it-well philosophy and the MS philosophy. No duh, you say. Well, but one of them is about having developers insulated from the platform and from the common mistakes, and the other is about making the platform common and the mistakes plain and easily-solvable.

The problem is that software development, in the corporate environment, is more about solving complex problems than simple ones.

Anyway, like I said this is poorly formed and I'll talk more about it later.

Two reasons to go to Big Fat Whale

This week's Big Fat Whale is particularly hilarious, especially if you're a snobby elitist like both me and its creator, Bostonian Brian McFadden. Regarding this strip, McFadden blogs, "I am aware that the tone of this cartoon and posting is extremely elitist and loaded with film snobbery. It is also 100% accurate, except for the part about the bees."

Earlier this week, Brian McFadden also blogged about something particularly mindblowing. I'll quote it in its entirety.

Last weekend, in a fit of insomnia, I caught a series on Discovery Science called The Baby Human. I'm a big ol' nerd, so of course it was fascinating. But there was one experiment they performed on babies that was the most awesome thing in the entire universe. They'd have kids of a certain age, maybe 18-24 months, where they'd have them play with three toys for a while. I remember a little tikes car, Steve's Big Red Chair, and a slide. Then they'd go away for a while. When they returned to the room with the toys, they had been replaced with miniature scale models. And here's what makes the experiment so awesome, the kids wouldn't realize they were scale models. They were so emotionally attached to the toys, that they kept trying to squeeze into the Lilliputian models. They had no idea how retarded they looked. It cracked my shit up. Obviously, if given any opportunity, I will try to perform this experiment myself, just for shits and giggles. Think about that before you ask me to babysit.
Does anyone know if this works? I mean, I've heard of all sorts of strange child-behaviour psych experiments, but this one sounds too insane to be true. Here's a paper (pdf link) that describes an experiment that "proves" that babies can count. I've done the "the object is here, now it's gone!" thing with my infant neices and nephews. (I'm sure my fomer-psych-major friends could tell me the name of that reaction.) It's highly amusing, but I need more.

75 feet per second shrimp leg routinely destroys snail shells

Nature is AWESOME.

Wednesday, November 24

The best album title of all time

... That honour would have to belong to Trouser Jazz, by Mr. Scruff. On that album, there appears a good song called "Vibrate" with guest vocals by British hip-hop artist Braintax. Here are the lyrics as far as I can tell.


Yeah, you can call me that
As I walk with the Luddites and me trusty axe
I'm a whole lot removed from the Domini Pax,
The pacts with the church, and the new poll tax.
I haven't got the pox, I've turned twenty-eight
My mate's thirty-one but he's dying from the plague
Life's a bitch right now and I can still hear the hills
Watch my carbon vibrate mate

And I'm way down the mine in another lifetime
But I don't how this canary keeps chirping
And my lungs are tight
When you've got to keep working, What's the point in life?
There's a hundred miners here in the union
March through the manor while the owner takes communion
I'm going in to get my wage for last year
Plus a big bag of food ,one of them big chandeliers
I affect the state and affect the earth
And pass my spirit on again
Until it's triggered by a birth
I resonate, you resonate, I say echo, you vibrate

I'm in this for a better life, staying clever
Got the soldiers on the hop, slept in the oak tree
Raided a crop
They probably think I'm Catholic because of my name
I caught the King's deer,
They were giving me fame
And they heard about my antics up at the castle
When I didn't pay my taxes
Down came the hassle
They burnt my village and my family at the stake
I felt the whole ground shake
'Cause spirits resonate
They want my pagan head
Turn the hunters in my band and that's as good as it gets
We affect, you affect,
Everybody move your molecules
From your nails to your follicules

It's 1856
I'm at the workhouse with my bundle of sticks
These people think I'm nuts but they won't complain
When their lives get better cause of my campaign
Sabotage man with the Guy Fawkes precedent
Burn the city hall - smoke out the residents
Make a mark in my town and adjust my standard of living
Till my pitchfork rusts
Change the chain, unchain all hands
Latter-day Scargill, I'll affect this land
I come in peace, from a small piece of dark
And I'm going back soon
So for now I'll make marks

Tuesday, November 23

Random music note: The Fun Lovin' Criminals

So I'm listening to The Fun Lovin' Criminals right now. You know, the Philadelphia group that had a hit single called Scooby Snacks in the early nineties?

They've done a few things since then, but all still in the same groove. Good beats, decent lyrics, head-bobbing hooks, and a singing (if you can call it that) style that's certainly rap but also certainly not hip-hop. I think. I'm not really up on the internal divisions of rap.

Anyway. I like the band; they make my head bob. Go take a listen on iTunes or something.

Information markets: how cool is this?

This Economist article on information exchanges astounds me. (You can only read it if you have a subscription, or if you buy access to it. I happened to read it in my paper copy of the magazine; if you know Fraxas personally, email me and I'll flip you the article in email.)

Essentially, the article describes (and prognosticates on) a relatively novel kind of exchange. Rather than selling securities in companies (aka stock) or derivative instruments, information exchanges sell futures on events yet to happen. That probably doesn't mean much to you unless you follow the markets, so here's a longer explanation cribbed from the article:

Take the presidential election: people could bet on George Bush by buying a contract that paid a dollar if he won and nothing if he lost. Anyone certain of a Bush victory should have been willing to pay up to a dollar for the contract. Anyone confident that Mr Bush would lose could have sold such a contract, expecting to pay nothing when the result came. With many participants buying and selling in this way, the market discovered a price for the contract—in effect, its best guess of the probability of a Bush win.

Think about that for a second. This is a mechanism that exploits people's (enlightened?) self-interest, in the form of their desire for money, to collect their opinion on a particular topic. It discourages the intentional and unintentional fraud inherent in phone surveys, because of the monetary stake. It also introduces a novel (for the opinion-gathering industry) and well-tested set of tools for opinion analysis: the discipline of financial economics.

That reminds me of the proof of Fermat's last theorem. (Simon Singh's account is a fantastic one, in case you care.) The proof relied partially on the realization that two very disparate branches of math were, in fact, solving the same problems from very different angles. Things difficult in one context are easy in the other, and vice versa. So perhaps thinking of opinion-modelling as a financial market will increase the accuracy of the opinion marketing. Additionally -- and this is a topic for a different essay -- could the same be true in reverse?

Another interesting aspect of information markets that isn't adressed in the Economist article is that these markets, if they become popular, allow people to monetize their knowlege in a relatively direct way. If I know more than the world in general does about a topic that's traded on an information exchange, I can exploit that knowledge for personal gain. Entrepreneurial current-events analyst could very well be a respected career choice.

Capitalism wins again!